22 September 2020

A former monastery, church
and chapel on Spike Island,
and two Communion stories

The former Anglican Chapel stands out in the centre of a prison block on Spike Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Spike Island was once the largest convict depot in the world with over 2,300 inmates. Over the centuries, the island’s rich history has included monks and monasteries, rioters and redcoats, captains and convicts and sinners and saints.

Today the island is dominated by the 200-year old Fort Mitchel, the star-shaped fortress that became a prison holding over 2,300 prisoners. It was once the largest prison in the world and there has never been a larger prison in Ireland or Britain before or since.

Two of us visited Spike Island at the end of last week, as our late summer ‘road trip’ seemed to extend into autumn day trips.

The island’s strategic location in Cork Harbour meant it an ideal location for military and prison facilities in the past. But in recent years the island has been developed as a heritage tourist attraction, with over 81,000 visitors a year. Spike Island was named the top European tourist attraction at the 2017 World Travel Awards.

Over a span of 1,300 years, Spike Island has been the home of a seventh century monastery, a 24 acre fortress, the world’s largest convict depot in Victorian times and, for centuries, an island village with family homes, a school and a church.

Saint Mochuda, later known as Saint Carthage of Lismore, is said to have founded a monastery on Spike Island in the year 635 AD after he had cured the High King of Ireland and was granted ‘land including Inis Pic forever more.’

Saint Mochuda is said to have spent a year on Spike Island before leaving behind 40 followers to set up another monastery at Lismore, Co Waterford. The disciples he left behind on Spike Island continued on his work, with later descriptions say the ‘island is a most holy place in which an exceedingly devout community constantly dwell.’

Inside the Mitchel Hall, the former Anglican chapel on Spike Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The principal evidence for a monastic foundation on Spike Island is found in Archdall’s Moanasticon Hibernicum, which states that Saint Mochuda founded a monastery there in the seventh century. However, another passage from the Life of Saint Mochuda implies that Saint Mochuda was associated with a place called ‘Rahen,’ rather than Spike Island.

a The monks on Spike Island had a safe haven and sustenance on the island, farming the land and fishing the waters, until the Vikings came stormed Cork harbour in 820 AD.

They may have abandoned the island temporarily. But recent research by European scholars suggest an important ecclesiastical document, the Liber de ordine creaturarum, was written on the island. This has been described as ‘a work of magnificent conception ... Intertwining spacial and temporal dimensions, it is a bold attempt at describing God’s grand plan for the universe he created …’ If the Spanish researchers are correct about the Spike Island origin, then future research may uncover an important scriptorium.

A grant to Saint Thomas’s Abbey, Dublin, of the Church of Saint Rusien on Spike Island in 1178 supports claims to a continuing monastic presence on the island. Some reports suggest a monastic presence there as late as the 16th century, with a monastic continuity of 900 years.

Although the ruins of a church were reported on the island in 1774 and maps of the period show the same, no traces of the monastery have been found on the island. The enormous building work by the army in the late 1700s to create Fort Mitchel may have destroyed any lingering archaeological evidence of monastic or ecclesiastical remains.

The Mitchel Hall at the centre of the block was used as an Anglican chapel until the last prisoners left Spike Island in the late 1800s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Mitchel Hall was completed in 1851 by convict and civilian labour, and the wider ‘C Block’ as it was known housed convicts sent from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

The central hall, an attractive building with an ornate fa├žade, was used as an Anglican chapel until the prisoners left in the late 1800s. Religion not only offered spiritual relief to the convicts but was seen as an important part in their rehabilitation.

The Revd Henry Woodruff was the first Anglican or Church of Ireland chaplain on Spike Island, and the prison also had Roman Catholic and Presbyterian chaplains.

Father Timothy Lyons, who may have been the longest-serving staff person on the island, spent 34 years as the prison chaplain, from 1849 to 1883. In 1857, he reported, ‘All the prisoners attend at an early hour every morning in the prison chapel for Morning Prayer and at divine services every Sunday and holiday … those who have witnessed their conduct in the chapel have been much struck with their earnest and edifying behaviour.’

The Revd Charles Bernard Gibson was the Presbyterian chaplain in 1856-1863. He was critical of the prison regime: ‘the prisoners are separated from each other by thin boarded and wired partitions, like a menagerie of wild animals, that snarl and fight in defiance of their keepers.’

The chalice and paten used by Anglican prison chaplains on Spike Island in 1848-1883 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A silver-plated chalice and paten, used by the Anglican chaplains in the chapel on Spike Island from 1848 and 1883, is engraved with name of the Spike Island and the words ‘Convict Church 1848.’

When the prison on Spike Island closed in June 1883, the remaining convicts were transferred to Mountjoy Jail in Dublin, and the chalice and paten were taken by the then governor, Peter Hay, to his next posting in Mountjoy Prison. There they were used for services in the Church of Ireland chapel for over a century, until it closed in 2013.

The chalice and paten were donated to the Spike Island museum by the Irish Prison Service in May 2017 and are now on display in the former Punishment Block.

Later, when the fort was occupied by British and then Irish forces, Mitchel Hall, was used for Friday evening dances for the residents, for wedding receptions and other community events.

The former family home of ‘Little Nellie of Holy God’ on Spike Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Visitors also come to Spike Island to see the house that was once the childhood home of Nellie Organ, known as ‘Little Nellie of Holy God.’ She was born on 24 August 1903, at the Royal Infantry Barracks in Waterford, the fourth child of William Organ from Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and Mary (Aherne) from Portlaw, Co Waterford. She was baptised in Trinity Parish Church (‘Trinity Without’), Ballybricken, on Sunday 30 August 1903.

The family soon moved to Spike Island when her soldier father was stationed there with his family. She displayed a precocious spiritual awareness at an early age when her mother brought her along the shoreline to the village church to Mass.

When her mother died of TB, Ellen was taken into the care of the Sisters of the Good Shepard Convent in Sunday’s Well, Cork. The Good Shepard convent was one of many ‘Magdalene Laundries’ in Ireland, with stories of abuse and unmarked graves.

The nuns in Sunday’s Well noticed the child’s religious understanding was advanced beyond her years and were devastated to learn that this pious child had also contracted TB. Despite this, her devotion grew and Ellen began to describe visions and conversations with God and Jesus, and to display knowledge of the Trinity.

She expressed a desire to receive her first Holy Communion, which Catholic children of the day normally received at the age of 12. The Good Shepherd nuns they contacted the local Bishop, who was utterly convinced that Ellen should receive Communion. She received her first Communion at the age of five, died soon after in 1908 and was buried in her communion dress at Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Cork.

When the nuns asked to move her body to the Good Shepard cemetery, she was exhumed and the priest and two men present reported her body was incorrupt, unchanged in appearance, as if she had been buried the day before.

Her story reached Pope Pius X in Rome soon after her death. At the time, the Pope was considering lowering the age of Communion for children from 12. On hearing the story of ‘Little Nellie,’ he lowered the age for Catholic children from 12 to seven. Queen Isabella of Spain asked one of her relics, and there were similar requests from France.

The house where her family lived in on Spike Island has been preserved and her room has been recreated, with a display of some relics.

The former village church on Spike Island has fallen into decay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The prison and military garrison ensured the survival of a small village on the north of the island – mainly consisting of families of those employed there – survived until 1985. The village came to an end after a prison riot in 1985

Today, the village church, school, homes and community buildings are decaying and crumbling.

But from the shoreline below the village and the former village church, Saint Colman’s Cathedral can be seen towering above the town of Cobh, and its 49-bell carillon – with Ireland’s largest bell – can be heard every hour and quarter hour across the narrow straits that separate the two islands.

The carillon of Saint Colman’s Cathedral can heard clearly on Spike Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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